Punch-Drunk Love: Quirky Love Story With an Incredible Sandler

Punch-Drunk Love
Punch it!

The general consensus amongst intelligent cinema buffs appears to be Adam Sandler is a talentless moron.

If you watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s quirky 2002 cult hit Punch-Drunk Love, you’ll see he’s capable of brilliance.

He’s really good in this, alongside the fantastic Emily Watson, in a cult movie which deserves much wider recognition.

Punch-Drunk Love and the Exploration of Loneliness and Entrapment

There’s lots to love here. Anderson is one of our favourite directors—he makes consistently innovative films.

Punch-Drunk Love provides a unique love story between the socially awkward Barry Egan (Sandler) and the mysterious Lena Leonard (Watson).

The latter becomes infatuated with the former. She manufactures a way to meet him and try to get a date—she turns up at his business looking magnificent in red. Bloody hell, Emily Watson. Swoon.

Egan runs a toilet plunger and novelty item small business.

He’s an introverted and eccentric sort (during the film, he insists on wearing a peculiar blue suit). It’s not mentioned in the film, but you have to presume his awkward behaviour is a result of autism.

And with some seven sisters, who are all extroverted and prone to ordering him around, that doesn’t help his state of mind.

His lonely existence, which also barely involves any culture, is prone to outbursts of rage. This is demonstrated during a party at his sister’s house.

In a fit of loneliness, he calls a sex chat line. This puts him into the path of conman Dean Trumbell (Philip Seymour Hoffman in a pre-fame role), who decides to extort Egan where possible.

At the same time, his sister Elizabeth (Mary Lynn Rajskub of 24 fame) introduces him to Lena, who is infatuated with Barry. Out of the blue, he’s forced to cope with two battling forces and appears to be falling in love.

Okay, so that’s the synopsis, but it misses out on a heck of a lot of quirk, such as how Egan is buying a metric tonne of puddings as the offer they provide has frequent flier miles (this was based off a true story, too).

Sandler masters Egan from the word go and is compelling as the introverted oddball, who struggles enormously with his emotions but appears to blossom as the film progresses.

Watson’s earnest performance is also worth full marks and she’s swoon-worthy as Lena. She’s forthright, yet vulnerable.

She keeps her English accent in the film and, as the audience, we don’t find out much about her—she’s just a mysterious entity. Clearly a little shy, but of an age now when she wants to push herself and take risks.

Alongside them is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who’s terrific as the sleazeball mattress salesman Dean Trumbell. This is the guy who extorts people on the side.

We’re not sure if Hoffman ad libbed this or if it was in the script, but his barking of “Shut up!” is just goddamn inspired.

Hoffman isn’t in the film much (and wasn’t a huge star by 2002), but you can see why he went on to dominate Hollywood.

Egan and Trumbell eventually have a memorable head-to-head moment when they size each other up. And it’s glorious.

Anderson’s use of music is also inspired, with peculiar noises and percussion capturing the mayhem going on inside Egan’s mind (as you hear in the clip above).

It’s thoughtful little touches like this that make Anderson such an intriguing creative force.

It worked wonders in Punch-Drunk Love and we urge you to put aside any Sandler concerns to simply enjoy this quirky love story.

The film has a lot of hidden depths, with the combination of Sandler and Watson working extremely well. They’re brilliant together.

And in many respects, the film is one for the misfits of the world. No ridiculous contrivances or swooning, classic Hollywood style.

This is a story about two shy introverts finding each other and having a go of it. A brilliant film and a cult classic.

Punch-Drunk Love’s Production

Amazingly, there’s the full 2002 press conference from  the Cannes Film Festival. Well worth watching, if you have a spare 38 minutes.

Despite a budget of $25 million, the film wasn’t a huge success. Punch-Drunk Love made back $24.7 million at the box office.

After Magnolia in 1999, Paul Thomas Anderson wanted to make a shorter movie. And he wanted to involve Adam Sandler. Apparently, people thought he was joking when he announced that.

Anderson wrote the film, specifically with Sandler and Watson as the leads. Well, what an inspired concept! Full credit to him there.

But due to Sandler’s reputation, Anderson had to convince producers to go ahead with the project. Some couldn’t work out why he wanted him for the lead. But his belief in Sandler was born out of a Saturday Night Live sketch:

“There’s this moment when he’s doing this talk show called The Denise Show about his ex-girlfriend who’s left him, and his father calls up and says, ‘What are you doing? You’re embarrassing the family!’ And Adam goes into this fit of rage, screaming at his father, and honest to God I saw this moment where it appears as if the whites of his eyes turn black and they roll back in his head. It was like, he just lost his mind. I would play it back, over and over again, and you can see him kinda snap back to reality. The audience is laughing and it’s almost like he finally started to hear them laughing a few seconds later.”

Many comedians have made the jump from comedy to serious dramas, of course, with the likes of Jim Carrey shifting to Truman Show in 1998.

Into the script, Anderson added an element inspired by American civil engineer David Phillips. In May 1999, he managed to use a supermarket scheme to gather 1,253,000 frequent flyer miles.

Egan’s character also follows a similarly obsessive quest.

However, after Sandler first heard about the role he didn’t know much about Anderson. He watched Magnolia and was promptly left terrified, suffering from a bout of imposter syndrome.

Anderson buoyed his confidence with reassurances. And filming took place over a year, with its launch in later 2002 leading to strong reviews.

It also won Best Director at Cannes for Anderson, whilst Sandler won Best Actor at Gijón International Film Festival, and Watson winning Best Supporting Actress at the Toronto Film Critics Association.

No Oscar nominations, though. For shame!

Adam Sandler’s Brilliance in Punch-Drunk Love

Adam Sandler has become synonymous with bad films. We’re sure he’s a nice bloke, but he has exhibited remarkable laziness with his projects.

And they, inexplicably, keep being colossal commercial successes despite their terrible reputation. Jack and Jill, Grown Ups 1 & 2, Pixels, his Netflix films… the list of abominations is endless.

What’s doubly disappointing is, as displayed in Punch-Drunk Love, he has the talent to be starring in fantastic films, but instead plumps for lazy comedies which require little effort but will, again inexplicably, earn hundreds of millions of dollars.

Clearly he has a massive fanbase, but we don’t know anyone who goes to see, or likes, any of his work. Who are these people!?

Of his 2002 performance in Anderson’s film, renowned American film critic Roger Ebert had this to say:

“Sandler, liberated from the constraints of formula, reveals unexpected depths as an actor. Watching this film, you can imagine him in Dennis Hopper roles. He has darkness, obsession, and power. He can’t go on making those moronic comedies forever, can he?”

Well… yes, he can. And he does do fairly regularly. Although more recently he’s branched out into excellent dramas such as Uncut Gems (2019).

And that’s great to see. Hopefully he’ll continue on that route as he’s genuinely a quite sensational actor when he puts the effort in. More of this please, Mr. Sandler.


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